france’s un prophète is a masterpiece
Admittedly, handing out a four-star rating in your first published film review is like wearing a tuxedo to the first day of class. The enthusiasm is commendable, but it may be overdoing it a bit. Fortunately, that’s not the case here: France’s (unsuccessful) submission for this year’s “Best Foreign Language Film” earns the rating—and probably more so than any other film you saw in 2009. But, you interject, what about Avatar and its groundbreaking 3-D visuals? Or The Hurt Locker and its expertly-crafted, almost-ceaseless bomb-disarming tension? A Prophet is better and more entertaining than both and proves, along with Sweden’s Let the Right One In, Germany’s The Lives of Others, and Spain-Mexico’s Pan’s Labyrinth, that the division maintained between the “Best Picture” and “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscars is not only bizarre, but entirely absurd.
A Prophet, (French title: Un Prophete), is the story of Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rhaim), a young man of unspecified North African descent serving a six-year prison term in France for assaulting a police officer. Avoiding the common prison movie tropes, A Prophet does not construct its plot around a desire to escape or a will to survive until eventual release. Malik is a character who may think about the future, but he acts decisively in the present; it just so happens that his present is a brutally political prison-yard teeming with Muslim thugs, corrupt guards, and a group of hegemonic Corsican Mafiosos led by a modern-day Machiavelli named Luciani. Though Malik at first attempts to keep himself removed from all the intrigue, he is drawn into the Godfather-esque world of protection and promotion, favors and punishments, when the Luciani asks him to kill a new Arabic-speaking prisoner who may spill some sensitive information in court. He tells Malik he could choose not to do it, except that his awareness of the planned hit means that he himself would have to be killed. This is the startling—and incredibly fascinating—underworld in which A Prophet carefully unfolds.
While perhaps the story is the most interesting part of A Prophet, there is no denying that Malik is a compelling central character. Unexpectedly, however, though the events taking place in the prison (spoiler: and beyond) are mediated through his character, he remains somewhat unknowable. We never learn very much about his background, his family, or his criminal history. Sometimes, such as when he is self-studying Corsican in his cell, one gets the sense that, ostracized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, he is just looking for acceptance. On the other hand, when he is seen using his ability to understand the obscure Mediterranean language to his own material advantage, it is obvious that his motives are not so guiltless. Though the viewer comes to learn more about the ever-complicated Malik through his relationships and interactions with other prisoners, it must be said that even as the credits roll, he remains tantalizingly elusive.
So, is there anything negative about A Prophet? Each viewer may have his or her own minor criticisms, but it would be difficult to find any major fault with the film. Admittedly, I did overhear one viewer criticize it for being too long. Obviously, at 150 minutes, A Prophet is by no means short and will easily eat up most of your evening or afternoon. That said, it does not take its running time for granted, achieving a pace that keeps it tense and interesting until the very end. Also, it should be said that the same viewer, during the very first scene of the movie, when Malik is shown in custody, leaned over to me and asked loudly: “Wait, why is he in jail?”
Unless you’re that guy, you will enjoy spending two and a half hours at the Avon with this new French masterpiece.